Can’t deny it: the link between my childhood and my adulthood

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I am not a perfect parent by any means, if such a thing exists. My now 19-month-old is already a television addict, eats boxed mac and cheese multiple times a week, and didn’t start sleeping through the night until 16 months (partly due to her disposition and partly due to my inconsistent sleep training).

I am not a perfect mother, but often I surprise myself. Like that one week when my daughter caught a cold and slept about half as many hours as she usually does, meaning that I slept only 2-4 hours every night, I managed to still wake up every morning before six o’clock, ready to go to work and ready to love her as much as a well-rested mother does.

But above all, I believe my most valued strength as a mother is my emotional attunement with my child. I have a strong sense of her emotional state, her likes and dislikes. I can sense early on when her needs shift, like when she’s had enough of playing ball or if today is a porridge day rather than a mac and cheese day.

Emotional attunement with my daughter is as natural to me as drinking water. This is partially because I am highly attuned with my own self, sometimes so attuned to the point where I get stuck in my own emotional hurricanes. But otherwise my sensitive and empathic nature has served me well in parenthood.

You might be wondering why I’m highlighting this specific quality. I have a rock-solid belief that a child’s connection with her parents (or other primary caretaker) lays the foundation of how she approaches the world, other people and her self.

The way I am with my child informs her way of expressing herself, if her expressions will be responded to, if the world is a safe or unsafe place, and if she is a lovable or competent person. When I acknowledge her feelings, she knows that she exists, that she is important, that people will take care of her, and that it’s okay for her to express her needs. (For those of you wondering where this is coming from, my beliefs are reflective of what is known in the world of psychology as attachment theory, which is the basis of the attachment parenting approach. This theory states that a child’s relationship with her caregiver in early life is the building block of her psychological development.)

I did not always believe this. When I left home for college, I believed that since I was no longer living with my family and lived a very different lifestyle than theirs, I was officially a separate entity, completely unaffected. My bubble no longer bumped into theirs. Poof, they were gone. And from a distance, I could build a new life and remake myself.

But a number of life’s shit storms forced me to rewind my life and examine my relationship with my parents, particularly in how it has influenced my personality. Why is it that I have perfectionist tendencies? Why is it that when I face something that makes me feel even slightly incompetent, I become paralyzed and want to abandon it? Why do I have trouble asserting myself in relationships? Why do I over accommodate others? Why am I often rigid? Why do I always needs validation from others? These were the questions I began to tackle during my college years. It was not an easy, fun, or fast process. I resented having to revisit my childhood but had little choice.

Like many Chinese immigrant parents I know, mine were emotionally distant, overworked, and just trying to get by. And I’m confident that their parents from pre-Vietnam war era were the same. My parents provided a life for us. We always had home cooked meals, were able to get to and from school, and had occasional outings to theme parks. During my childhood, we spent a lot of time in the same space together but, at the same time, alone in our own worlds. I didn’t feel like I knew my parents in a deep way until I was much older. I’d say that they don’t know me deeply even now.

Interestingly, my parents demanded high expectations for success but in a very hands-off approach. It was a lot of commanding statements like “You need to get straight A’s” without checking that our homework was complete. At the end of the year, they just had to trust that our report cards indicated that we were meeting their expectations.

As teenagers, we had a lot of freedom to do what we wanted. Even though our parents expressed their desires for us not to date or go out past ten o’clock, they never enforced the rules. I’m not sure they had the energy or skills to know how to do that.

Also like many Chinese people, my parents were very loud and very quiet at the same time. Very loud in their speech volume and the intensity of what they talking about, yelling about how tasty the shrimp is—and very quiet in that they were not direct in their communication, rarely talked about feelings or personal stories, and often avoided conflict rather than confronted it.

Analyzing these traits (and some others I’ll refrain from sharing) about my parents and Chinese culture helped fill in the puzzle of my identity crisis. No wonder I had poor boundaries in my relationships. No wonder I had difficulty sharing my feelings with others. No wonder I used my grades, awards, and achievements as a measure of my own self-worth. Whether I liked it or not, the fact was that subconsciously or genetically, I had inherited a large piece of my parents’ way of being and thinking.

About six years ago, I finally came to a place when I no longer blamed my parents for my life challenges and personality flaws. My parents are the products of their own upbringing, culture, and time. And I am the product of mine. They parented the way they did because it was the only way they knew how. We must all accept what is and forgive what can be forgiven.

The more I came to understand about my family of origin, the more I am able to understand myself and what it is I am to do in order to become a good mother. I feel like I’ve spent my whole adulthood fixing what felt like a very deficient person. And I don’t want my daughter to ever feel that way. I don’t want her to spend precious years patching up wounds and compensating for a less than ideal childhood.

There are times when I prefer being static or am simply too tired to work towards change. And there are other times, such as this past four months, when I have energy and enthusiasm for growth. Every day during my current growth cycle, I have reached some sort of milestone in becoming a better wife, daughter, sister, friend, worker, and global citizen. It is no easy task. I am constantly examining what I am doing and asking why I am doing it. I am constantly watching other people and learning from them. I am constantly looking for things that no longer serve me so that I can purge them. It requires so much energy, but I receive more energy from the process as a result.

I am grateful to have more expansive and educated ideas about parenting than my parents did. I am grateful to have a husband who shares similar ideas about parenting. And I’m also grateful that my parents are open to my parenting approach and can see that she is thriving as a result. I aim to grow myself so that I can be a healthy reflection for my daughter.

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